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Do you have to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer?

Erika Osváth, an educator, English teacher and materials writer from Hungary, talks about how the ELT world is changing, and how the supremacy of the native speaker may soon be over.

I was recently asked if you need to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer.

Interestingly enough, I had been thinking about it myself quite a lot lately. My first instinctive answer to this question is: “Of course, not!” But then, I doubt myself almost immediately and think: “Of course, you do! How else could you write English language teaching materials?” So what is the right answer? And why can’t I decide? Instead of following this thread, I decided to draw up a shortlist of criteria of what I believe makes a good materials writer.

Well, first of all one has to be creative and innovative, able to  produce materials that are not only engaging and interesting, but also offering fresh approaches and ideas. At the same time a good materials writer has to have a good knowledge of the type of teachers who are going to use them. In my experience this is crucial, as teachers have very little time and energy wherever you look in the world to tune into new teaching approaches, really understand them and put them into practice. So a great deal of empathy is required from a good writer towards teachers, the way they teach and their attitudes, to keep a fine balance between old and new approaches. (Though I always feel there’s nothing new under the sun.)

Of course the same applies to learners: considering the type of learner, their age-specific learning styles influenced by cultural background and social context, possible interests, difficulties with the language is necessary. In case of children it is also crucial to be aware of the different developmental stages (which have shifted somewhat compared to, say 15-20 years ago, due to hormonal changes – in many respects an 8-year-old today is more like a 10-year-old a good decade ago). All these factors determine the channels through which they acquire and learn a language.

The next thing a good materials writer possesses is the ability to match the right methodology to the specific learner group. So they need to be well-informed about the different types of engaging activities, the way they flow from one another to match the aims of lessons and the necessary teaching framework.

Now, if I look back at the criteria listed above, none of them strike me as being characteristics natives any more than non-natives. So up to this point, my answer to the initial question is “No, you don’t.”

But then I wonder again.  A good materials writer has to be well-informed about the language and how it works, including being up-to-date with the changes that take place in the language. The latter point is inarguably one where native speakers have a convincing advantage over non-natives. Having said that, in today’s online world a lot of information about the language can be found almost at an instant. The process requires more effort on the part of a non-native writer if they want to keep themselves up-to-date with all these changes, unless they live in a native environment. In addition, finding information about the language on the internet may not be enough.

In general, however, I find that the language level of non-native teachers has improved enormously over the past two decades, which makes them more competent in the area of materials development for higher levels, too.

Another argument that should not be overlooked is that in general the aim of English courses is not to speak the language at a native level, but to be able to function in English in an environment where the language is spoken mostly with other non-natives.

And then I stop to think again about my own teaching, and realise that I write at least half of the teaching materials I’m using with my classes myself from beginner to advanced level, they seem to work well, the progress of my students is good and I’m a non-native. So why would I think twice about this question?

I believe that the way we think about who makes a good materials writer needs to be revisited and we have to make a conscious effort to not fall into the trap of our beliefs based on old perceptions and impressions.

Times have changed.

Are you a non-native English speaker? Would you like the chance to write teaching materials for Oxford University Press? Then take a look at our new ELT authors page.

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A decent proposal

Man writing by candlelightWant to be an ELT author? Don’t know how to get started? Neil Wood, Managing Editor for Business English, ESP and EAP titles at OUP offers some advice.

If you have aspirations to be an ELT author, it pays to know what you’re letting yourself in for. Be under no illusions – the work is demanding and the rewards, at least in financial terms, are by no means guaranteed. So how do you get started?

There are a number of ways, but it usually starts with a proposal. There are basically two kinds: those which arrive unexpectedly on an editor’s desk, or in their inbox, and those written in response to a request from the publisher.

What the publisher is looking for will obviously vary, but in responding to any proposal there are usually three basic questions that need to be addressed.

1. Is it of publishable quality (or does it have the potential to become so)?
2. Is it commercially viable in its present form?
3. Does it fit in with our current publishing plans?

The first two are self-evident, but question 3 is often crucial, especially for speculative proposals. ELT publishers normally have a publishing plan stretching several years into the future and developed in response to quite specific market requirements. Sending in an unsolicited proposal is therefore largely a matter of luck – unless it arrives on the editor’s desk at exactly the time they are looking for something similar, it may not be accepted.

That said, there are famous examples of unsolicited proposals that went on to become blockbusters – the Streamline series was an early OUP success which arrived unannounced and proved enduringly popular. Then there’s ‘the one that got away’ – at least one major publisher failed to see the potential of Raymond Murphy’s idea for a student grammar before it was snapped up by CUP. In that case, the rest, as they say, is history.

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